Counter-Intuitive Futures: Will Airport Terminals Really Be Better Through Technology?
Bill Hooper in Airport Design, Technology, Transportation, airport, aviation

The “Fight Deck” at SFO Terminal 3, Boarding Area E, developed by Gensler in partnership with Razorfish. Image © Joe Fletcher.

This post is part of a series related to the 2016 Gensler Design Forecast, highlighting trends that will transform how we live, work and play in the next decade.

Reading magazines such as Architecture, Passenger Terminal, Travel and Leisure or Popular Mechanics raises a set of similar thoughts: Won’t it be great when you can use your mobile devices to speed your way to the gate, or help you find sushi in the terminal? Won’t it be wonderful when an optical scan replaces the need to be frisked at the security checkpoint? Won’t it be better when wayfinding is in the palm of your hand?

While some of these technological dreams have begun coming to fruition, it’s important to remember that technology alone isn’t a panacea for the hassles of air travel. That doesn’t mean better tech won’t continue to play an important role in airport design; it just means we need to pursue a more comprehensive solution.

All of the ideas listed above may create the kind of hype that sells magazines and amazes readers with visions of some tech-enabled, utopian airport experience. But is that really what we should be striving to design? Would it make the passenger experience that much better? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it would not. The design of physical spaces actually plays a much more fundamental role in shaping our experience of travel, and better designed terminals have the best chance of improving the passenger experience.

The over-reliance on mobile phones for wayfinding causes passengers to become marketing targets and separates them from the places where they physically are. If we could instead focus on allowing a terminal’s architecture and engineering to subtly reinforce easily comprehensible pathways, then passengers’ ability to find their way, without constantly cross-checking our phones and receiving ads for products they don’t necessarily want, will be improved immeasurably.

When we design signage and wayfinding, we do so with a core belief in not providing information before it is actionable. For example, having a passenger try to remember your gate number before he or she is ready is too much to ask. So a sign that redundantly confirms that a passenger is on the right path is unnecessary. We have to ask whether GPS-related data really helps passengers or if it simply overwhelms them. Is a wave of data on everything from alternative routes to the location of restrooms and clubs to a glass of wine and a newspaper—actually desirable? The short answer: It isn’t.

Most air carriers are actively asking the architecture community about the terminal of the future, and for that particular paradigm technology is a key consideration. This is especially true for security checkpoints, where technology is continually evolving. We can look at the past 15 years as a series of changes: Initial highly intrusive investigation of the passenger and his/her related baggage, followed by recognition that the investigation of bags and people happen at different speeds and requires different levels of intrusion, followed by closer examination of the person by scanning technology while bags continue to simply be x-rayed. It’s predicted that biometrics will serve the same function of scanning, and that boarding passes, whether paper or image, will go the way of the ticket. They will no longer be a necessity.

We will find that scanning in the future is going to be far less intrusive, and far more by technology will be hidden in walls and walkways. We will find security is not just at a checkpoint, but throughout the terminals, so that continuous scanning is the norm, not just centralized.

And will iPhones or other mobile devices have any role in this? Doubtful. Requiring excessive use of phones is not the desired outcome. Nor is any direct physical intervention. The idea is not to overload a passenger with a barrage of data as soon as the passenger walks into a terminal. That same passenger may already be stressed. They may be standing in an unfamiliar building with unfamiliar operational protocols, and these situational stressors may cause them to do atypical things. Let’s not presume that an abundance of information in real time is always useful or helpful. Your iPhone, in this case, is not a solution.

Design has the power to simplify, to help guide us without overwhelming us. Technology can work with that base, but we should be wary of any fantasies that say technology will erode and supplant our physical experience—that outcome is not actually what want or think we want. Technology at the terminal, like that used in security and wayfinding, is at its best when it’s invisible and melded seamlessly to the environment, not layered on top of it in beguiling matrices, with nodes in the palm of our hands, our eyes dizzily traipsing between our palms and the footpath we are walking on, and our minds unsure of what to focus on.

Bill Hooper lives and breathes airport design. He’s traveled the world to design terminals from Jeddah to Chennai, and has the travel stories to prove it. He’s flown a flight with chickens on board, passed time in business class with an actress who shared her pharmaceuticals, and once rode the baggage claim belt at Washington National Airport (not as fun as one might hope). He is a Principal at Gensler and leads our global aviation and transportation practice, and you can contact him at
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